Falling short of the mark: NSW Unions’ verdict on Julia Gillard’s paid parental leave scheme. Photo: Andrew Meares Happy: Catriona Martin and six month-old Declan. Photo: Tamara Dean

NSW unions have demanded a more generous, Tony Abbott-style paid parental leave scheme, within days of Prime Minister Julia Gillard warning the opposition would threaten the rights of women if it won power.

The unions are calling for a wage replacement scheme for women on maternity leave that is similar to the Coalition’s controversial $150,000 proposed plan, saying the Prime Minister’s scheme does not go far enough.

The government’s scheme provides women with the equivalent of the minimum wage for 18 weeks. But Unions NSW has called for the amount to be increased through employer contributions to provide women with the equivalent of their salary, capped at the average weekly earnings figure of $72,400 per annum. It also wants the scheme extended to six months.

Mr Abbott plans a scheme that would pay women the equivalent of their earnings, capped at $150,000, for six months.

Like the Abbott scheme, the Unions NSW proposal calls for superannuation to be paid on all paid parental leave payments.

Unions NSW chief Mark Lennon said all employers would pay a levy into a pool from which women would draw top-up payments, to give them the equivalent of their wage, to a maximum of $72,400 a year.

He said many families were finding it difficult to afford taking parental leave paid at the minimum wage.

”Getting to the average wage of about $72,400 is a fairer outcome,” he said. ”Most people would qualify to get their full wage replacement if you are using that figure.”

”There is no doubt what the federal government has done by introducing a pay scheme is the most significant step in 40 years and we welcome it,” Mr Lennon said.

”But Unions NSW want to improve upon the scheme, particularly to make it more available for low to middle income earners who can then afford to take the entire six months off.”

The Australian Council of Trade Unions is also campaigning for a requirement that employers top up the government scheme.

Social commentator Eva Cox, who supports Mr Abbott’s proposal, said the Unions NSW idea showed paid parental leave schemes were being assessed on their merits – instead of the political party driving them.

”There is nothing surprising about Unions NSW putting up that model, apart from the fact that it isn’t the government’s model,” she said. ”I think what you’ve got here is another indication that some of the more conservative views of the current Labor government are not necessarily accepted by the union movement.

”This is an example of them bucking the system a bit, saying, ‘Sorry, we are not really enamoured with your particular scheme, we’d like to broaden it out. And some of the elements of what we want to broaden out are actually similar to what the opposition is putting up at this stage.’

”It is a bit cheeky of them in the current circumstances.”

Kevin Andrews, the opposition spokesman on families, housing and human services, said parental leave, like annual leave, should be paid at replacement wage because it was a workplace measure, not a welfare measure.

”If we want to encourage families to have kids, if we want to make it easier for women to have careers and families, we need a fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme. It’s not surprising the unions now agree.”

A spokesman for the Families Minister Jenny Macklin said the Gillard government delivered the first national paid parental leave scheme in Australia in 2011, helping more than 280,000 families.

”Before Labor’s scheme, only about half of Australia’s working women had access to some form of paid leave when they had a baby. That number is now at 95 per cent,” he said.

”It is fair for all working women and affordable for business, encouraging them to top up payments through their own employer schemes.

”In contrast, Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave policy would give wealthy people much more to have a baby, and make women on lower incomes pay for it with high prices at the checkout. That isn’t fair for families.”

The Unions NSW proposal will form a submission to the federal government’s review of the paid parental leave scheme to be completed by the end of the year.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the government’s paid parental scheme was nothing more than “a dressed-up welfare payment that doesn’t even include superannuation”.

“As the gender wars rage on, it is important for us to recognise that keeping mothers engaged with the workforce through a fairer paid parental leave scheme has significant social and economical benefits,” she said.

“The Greens want to see six months of parental leave with superannuation payments included.”Mothers enjoy baby at home

Catriona Martin enjoyed all the milestones of her baby’s first six months because the paid parental scheme allowed her to stay home from work.

Mrs Martin, 28, said she received about $500 a week for 18 weeks from the federal government scheme. She also received 16 weeks of paid maternity leave from the independent school where she works as a teacher.

The money from the scheme will allow her to take a year off work to care for her first baby, Declan, who is six months old, she said.

”It helped me stay afloat without having the pressure of going back to work,” she said.

”I have loved every minute of being at home. They grow up so quickly. You can miss the milestones that happen daily and weekly at that time if you’re not with them.”

Mrs Martin said she did not believe the government should spend more on the paid parental leave scheme, as it is generous and the money might be better spent on other services.

But she was very supportive of employers topping it up: ”If they did that it would increase the amount of time women could spend at home with their baby,” she said.

”Anything that will help keep mums at home for that first six months is a good thing.”

The options

Coalition plan: Wage replacement up to $150,000 a year; big businesses to pay a levy to contribute; paid for six months.Labor’s scheme: Wage replacement up to $32,554 a year   from July 1; funded by government; paid for 18 weeks.Unions NSW proposal: Wage replacement up to $72,400 a year; government-funded to $32,554, with employers to pay a levy to top up difference; paid for six months

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.